A Terrible Singer Becomes An Unlikely Star In ‘Souvenir’


David Kuehn and Jo Brisbane in ‘Souvenir.”

For Florence Foster Jenkins, it wasn’t about how well – or rather how badly – she sang, it was the sound of the aria she heard in her head. And despite her terrible voice, the New York socialite attracted an audience in invitational recitals she gave at the Ritz-Carlton, and later, in 1944 at the age of 76, to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. Apparently her singing was so bad, she was actually entertaining.

And so is “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,”at Cotuit Center for the Arts through March 20. A play with music by Stephen Temperley, “Souvenir” explores the Jenkins phenomenon through the eyes and ears of her accompanist Cosmé McMoon. In some ways the play is like a parody. Yet it truly isn’t. Jenkins couldn’t sing. She screeched and hit all the wrong notes. (You can listen to one of her recordings online.) People laughed. And so do we with Jo Brisbane in her robust, riotous, bravado performance, tinged with vulnerability, as the misguided diva, who says, “What matters most is the music you hear in your head.”

McMoon, is ably played by Cotuit executive director David Kuehn in his acting debut. An accomplished pianist with a pleasant voice who sings popular tunes as he tells his story, Kuehn is a formidable counterpoint to Brisbane. The play begins with McMoon’s flashback to his first interview with Jenkins at her home at the Ritz; she wants to hire him as her accompanist for recitals she gives to a select group of invitees. There is no mistaking; her voice is terrible, and he asks, “Why does she do it?” And then, “Why did I” take on the job? But he needs the money so he gets on board, and stays until her final concert at Carnegie Hall.

Kuehn’s natural style, his ease with the audience, and his skillful comic timing work well with Brisbane’s sometimes hilarious adventures into screeching song. Her extravagant, flamboyant, delightful over-the top performance kept Cotuit’s opening night sell-out crowd (just like Jenkins’ Carnegie debut) laughing.

Jenkins considered herself “a true coloratura.” And McMoon wonders, “How could she not know?” Yet, he adds: “If I couldn’t stop her making a fool of herself, I could at least contain the damage.”GF_CotuitCenterArts_031016

Jenkins goes on to make recordings and becomes somewhat of a celebrity. Meanwhile McMoon writes songs no one wants to sing. So, maybe, he ponders, “I’m no better than her.” Yet she was full of self-assurance, so, maybe, he thought, she was a “genius.”

At the Carnegie Hall performance, the audience apparently laughed and jeered, which Jenkins may have mistaken for cheers. In a dynamic scene, Brisbane, like Jenkins, had a new costume for every song. Alan Trugman’s beautiful dresses, one replete with angel’s wings, and Brisbane’s quick changes add additional sparkle to this grand production. And we do finally hear Brisbane’s real voice when she soulfully sings “Ave Maria.”

Andrew Arnault’s set design with grand piano and billowing curtains set a sophisticated scene. Mary Arnault directs with skillful awareness of the comic elements and also the wistful aspects of this rather bizarre story of a woman whose illusions about her talent carried her to celebrity during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, through Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II in a city hungry for entertainment, glamour and laughter.

Jenkins was a phenomenon, and you might want to watch for the upcoming film “Florence Foster Jenkins,”with Meryl Streep playing Jenkins. It’s a story that actually resonates today in the political arena, where celebrity and entertainment seem to be carrying the day.

“Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins” is at Cotuit Center for the Arts, 4404 Route 28, Cotuit, through March 20. For information and tickets, you may call 508-428-0669; or online at www.cotuitcenterforthearts.org.

— By Debbie Forman

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